A Career in FMCG Sales


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As you read this, you can count on me to be able to put myself in the shoes of a B-school student. I can picture myself sitting on those hard plastic chairs, waiting to be told what to expect from one company or another. And distrusting most of it, because, let’s face it, companies are advertising themselves in PPTs. You can also count on me to remember, keenly, the difference between what people expect from a marketing job in India, and what they confront at the start of their careers. As I am a relatively recent graduate, and someone who is presently off the career track of Marketing, I cannot give you the long-term wisdom that the other authors have provided, but I can help you prepare better for your first two years.

At the heart of the expectation gap are the terms we use on campus: ‘Sales’ and ‘Marketing’ are considered separate, and you are either a ‘Sales’ person or a ‘Marketing’ person. The truth is, without exception, you will start your career in Sales. The reason for this is simple: cash is the oxygen of an organization, without which it will die. Sales is like the lungs of the organization, it is what brings in the cash the organization needs to survive. Also, every Marketing decision has an impact on Sales, whether a positive or a negative impact. If you do not understand Sales, how will you know what Marketing decisions to make?

So, newsflash: you’re starting your career in Sales. But what does starting your career in Sales mean? It does not mean being a Donald Trump-ish wheeler dealer. Don’t look at it as something you can’t do because you’re not a natural born ‘salesman’. You are not going to be a salesman, you are going to be a Sales Manager. For you, Sales, in effect, means three things: Targets, Territory and Teamwork.

Think of Sales as being in the army. You are a general. You have Targets, objectives you must meet to remain in command. You have to conquer a Territory, giving your company an edge in that region over the competition. To do this, you have troops, who are your salesforce; and you have a Team under you who are managing the troops for you.

Targets are the most important for your career. One way or another, you have to find a way to meet them, and in order to be able to meet your targets, you will have to sift through data. In the beginning, expect most of your time spent with databases and excel sheets, teasing out trends, identifying red flags and opportunities for growth. You have to know your territory so well that you can accurately predict how much sales you can achieve in the coming months, and how you will achieve it: which brands you can count on, and which distributors you can count on. You need to know this so you can push back against your boss if he gives you an unrealistic number, and so you can push down against your Territory Officer if he tries to get away with lower targets.

Territory means that you have to fully explore the lay of the land where you are the Sales Manager. Typically, your territory will be broken into zones, each one managed by a Distributor. Each territory will have its quirks; certain products will do better than others; a significant portion of the sales will come from a few big players. Some zones will have competent Distributors you can rely on; others will have problem Distributors that you need to fix or fire.

Lastly, you will have your Team. Once you have learnt all you can about your territory, which requires a lot of hard work and travel, the focus of your job will be on managing your team. You will be younger than many of your Territory Officers, and at first you will know far less than them about Sales. You have to learn about their work from them, and you have to learn it so well that you can actually add value to their lives and careers. (This sounds hard, but it is achievable: generations of your seniors have done it before you, and so can you.)

Some of the most magical moments I shared were with my team, when the work and analysis I put in led them to ace their targets. I particularly remember one team of salesmen, early in my sales stint, whose members had not earned their bonus pay across two years. Stepping in, smoothing their structural problems, then doing the day-to-day job of encouraging them out on the beat—I had to push them really hard, but once they realized they could do it, they kept on doing it, long after I was gone. It may not seem like a big deal, but when your salesman, who earns six thousand rupees a month in basic pay, ends up making ten thousand—it can make all the difference in their lives. I’ve left the company, but they still remember to call me.

Just like in any army, Sales is full of war stories: the deeds you do as a Sales Manager are often remembered for long years afterwards. The great Sales Manager earns the loyalty, respect, and even adulation of his team. What better way to learn how to be a leader?

Therefore: learn your Excel and Data Analytics while in B-School. Expect to be stretched to your limits during your sales stint. But also expect, when you get out on the other side, to emerge stronger and smarter, and a leader of men and women.

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